Friday, August 29, 2008

Sukiyaki Western Django Comes to Town

After Kurosawa films inspired westerns like The Magnificent Seven and A Fistful of Dollars, there is a certain amount of twisted logic in re-importing the spaghetti western back into Japan. Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django (trailer here) is that film. Borrowing from Sergio Leone, Sergio Corbuccio, and indirectly Kurosawa, Miike recasts Yojimbo in feudal Japan, using what look like the costumes for a western-themed stage show meant to star Liberace and some of the props from Corbuccio’s original Django.

Miike cranks up the action somewhere between a cartoon and a video game, with stuff flying through the air and characters occasionally blowing holes through each other big enough to stick your arm through. Hideaki Ito is the archetypal man with no name, who swaggers into town, finding his skills sought after by the rival Genji (white) and Heike (red) clans—essentially A Fistful of Dollars rewound back to the feudal Heiji Rebellion. Listening to offers but staying non-committal, the gunslinger cools his heels at the Soba house run by Ruriki.

Red and white briefly mixed to pink when Ruriki’s son married Shizuka. However, when her husband was killed by his own clan, Shizuka took dubious refuge with the Genji, where she most definitely catches the lone gunslinger’s eye. While Sukiyaki is for the most part a testosterone driven action movie, its most interesting performances come from women. Yoshino Kimura is both seductive and emotionally nuanced as “the temptress” Shizuka. Kaori Momoi (previously seen it films like Memoirs of a Geisha and Kurosawa’s Kagemusha) steals the show as Ruriki, who turns out to be more of an action hero than the wooden gunslinger.

Some of the men do not fare so well, from an aesthetic perspective. The worst performance comes from Quentin Tarantino, who seems convinced audiences want to see he camp it up and go completely over the top. We don’t. This is totally annoying Destiny Turns on the Radio Tarantino, not the somewhat sufferable Pulp Fiction Tarantino. Fortunately, it is a relatively small supporting role, because when he is on-screen, things come to a screeching halt—quite an achievement given the hyper-kinetic energy Miike infuses into the proceedings

Miiko goes for whacked-out gonzo action and largely succeeds, thanks to the ultra-cool Momoi and a dance number from Kimura that alone is worth the price of admission. However, the film has a mean streak that somewhat dampens my enthusiasm. Cruelty and physical humor go hand-in-hand in Sukiyaki, and at times it makes an uneasy fit. It has wild look and a bizarre vibe, partly due to the actors’ unnatural sounding phonetic English. An occasional subtitle might have helped.

Takashi Miike is the ultimate cult director, so Sukiyaki should be red meat for his fans. The rest of us mere mortals are likely to find it wildly uneven, but never dull. After successful festival screenings co-presented by NYAFF and the Japan Society, Sukiyaki opens in New York today at the Angelika.